Rules for Entrepreneurs – Avoid relying on a few whale customers

As you build your business the thing you need the most are those first customers. They are what provide you cash flow and a track record to win new customers. Getting the first few are the hardest because they are usually buying from you and believe in your ability to deliver. This is one of your greatest strengths, but over time, it can become one of your biggest liabilities. Let me explain…

Selling yourself is different from selling your business

As I mentioned, when starting a business there is probably just you and maybe a partner. Many people bring contracts and relationships from previous jobs that help jumpstart the business and gets the cash flow going. These customers are buying from you because they know you and your ability to deliver. This is great and is the way many companies start, but you are really just selling yourself and not selling your business. This is the habit you must break.

Within the first six months of your business you should be planning a major marketing and sales effort to expand your client base beyond your core relationships. This takes your business to the next level where people are looking at the business and not just buying from you. Still they are buying from you but you must have people that can manage the project and be ready to take the lead. This accomplishes two things:

  1. You have more time to continue selling and growing the business
  2. You do not become the “go to person” for every issue keeping the perception that they are buying from you

Whale customers are great to have in the beginning

As the business grows, you might be lucky enough to land some great big clients that provide a lot of revenue to help you expand. This is great and we should all be so blessed by winning these kinds of clients. However, what develops is the “90/10″ rule – 10% of the clients provide 90% of the revenue. This could mean that 1 or 2 clients are keeping the company running and losing one of them would be catastrophic to the business. So you must do one key thing quickly – diversify.

You must diversify or your put your success in jeopardy

Diversification is hard for some companies. Many people get lazy and confident that they will never lose them. Trust me, I speak from experience, you will. It could be a change in management, your champion leaves to take another job, budget control moves to a different department that doesn’t know you and doesn’t see your value, or the company goes out of business. What I am trying to say is that anything could happen and it could happen at any time.

So what do you do? After I learned my first hard lesson, I applied this rule – for every whale client, I worked over a six month period to find 5-10 customers that matched their revenues so that over a two year period those whales went from 90% to 10-20% of your overall revenues. This gave us a greater sense of comfort so when we would lose one of those two whales, which we eventually did, we only had a dip in revenues and used our sales campaigns to pick up the slack and pick up a few new smaller customers to fill in the revenue gaps.

Are you in the “Whale Boat” right now?

Are you dealing with the same dilemma? What have you done to diversify your client base? What advice to you have for your fellow entrepreneurs?

Blogging and Facilitating Conversation

A few weeks ago, I spoke on a panel at WordCamp Dallas where we discussed the concept of business and blogging. Three years ago, this would be breaking all precedents of marketing and PR, but slowly companies have figured out that the best way to cultivate a loyal customer base in the age of social media is via transparency.

Direct2Dell demonstrates a company that has figured out that conversation with customers is a valuable trust and brand builder. Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathon Schwarz successfully blogs in an ongoing conversation with Sun customers. Zappos Shoes is fanatical about their communication.

These are just a handful of corporate blogs that exist today. It’s increasingly difficult to find companies that do not have blogs and those companies would likely tell you that they don’t regret it one bit.

The old style of marketing and communications said that there were such things as “internal memos” where a company could say or do something internally and pretty much ignore what happened outside and chalk things up to being “internal”.

Realistically, though, the conversation about a company’s brand and reputation is going to happen anyway. Simply ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Facilitating that conversation in such a way that builds trust and confidence in the brand is crucial.

Today, it is ever more impossible for companies to not be “out there” and be successful. Podcasting and video are great new media tools to put a human, approachbale face on a company. The next key , of course, is to actually be approachable.